Seeing Red, Getting Green. And Blue

I took up yarn dyeing last fall using plants I collected during my walks, donations from my sister’s and neighbors’ gardens, and onion skins scraped up out of the supermarket’s onion bins, and my experiments produced a beautiful range of yellows, greens, and browns. The next color family I wanted to explore was the reds. I knew I wasn’t going to get actual primary red or brilliant hues of related colors with the plants that were available to me, but I had read that red-related hues were possible with Japanese maple leaves and avocado pits and skins. Also my sister had promised me some beets from her garden that had gotten too tough to eat. Beets are supposed to dye wool a brownish pink.

I spent Thanksgiving with my sisters in Philadelphia, and the leaves were falling from the trees fast and thick. On one of our walks I saw a big pile of Japanese maple leaves of a frilly brown variety, and I filled a bag with them. It turned out that my sister had only one beet to donate to my cause, and when I got home I chopped it up and cooked it up in a dye bath with my bag of Japanese maple leaves. I mordanted two 2-oz. hanks in alum and dyed them. The result was distinctly brown, quite a pretty brown, but not the brick color I was imagining.

Walnut hull and brown maple leaf dyes

I was a little disappointed, but it stood to reason that I shouldn’t have expected red from brown leaves. So I went out on my late autumn walks and began collecting brilliantly red maple leaves from the ground, and when I cooked them in the dye vat, the water turned the color of purple grape juice. How could I not get reds, or at least purples?red-maple-leaves

Reds, well, maybe not… I got greens. The red maple leaf hanks are the two at the right of the photo.

Left two skeins, walnut hull dye; center two skeins, brown maple leaf dye; right two skeins, red maple leaf dye

The two on the far left are walnut hull, with the darker overdyed in fig leaf. The next two are brown Japanese maple leaf. The leaves were rust brown, and the darker was overdyed in red maple leaves. I was hoping they would make the yarn more russet red, but even though the dye looked purple, it actually gave me greenish brown and green colors, as you can see in the two hanks at the right. I was initially disappointed, because I was hoping for members of the red family, like pinks, oranges, and rust reds. But I came to really love those two hanks at the right of the photo above because in real life, they are a beautiful pastel green. I have struggled to get an accurate photograph of those colors, and finally I tried photographing them with some of my other pastel colors. I think I got pretty close to the real green this time.

Pink yarn dyed with avocado skin and pits; yellow from marigold; green from red maple leaves; blue from black beans
Pink yarn dyed with avocado skin and pits; yellow from marigold; green from red maple leaves; blue from black beans

Meanwhile, I was brewing avocado pit dye in a quest for orange hues. I was saving the avocado skins for a separate dye bath, hoping for the pink hues that are said to result from the skins. My information for dyeing with avocado pits and skins came from this blog post on The recipe calls for the addition of ammonia to the dye bath to make the bath alkaline, and almost instantaneously the bath did turn orange when I put the skins into it.

First day of avocado pit dye bath
Avocado pit dye bath, a couple of hours after adding the pits

Each day the bath darkened from orange to dark rust to a red-tinged almost-black. I let it brew outside on my back porch, shaking it around every day as it brewed, for about 10 days. Then I put two alum-mordanted skeins into the unheated bath and left them there. I wanted two intensities, so I took the lighter one out of the bath after 12 hours and kept the darker one in for about 24 hours. I might have gotten a darker shade if I had left the yarn in the bath for several days, but I liked the colors I was getting after 12 and 24 hours, and I wanted to use the exhaust bath for lighter pastel shades.

Two intensities of avocado pit dyed yarn (center) surrounded by brown plant-dyed yarn
Two intensities of avocado pit dyed yarn (center) surrounded by brown plant-dyed yarn

Those were the colors I was envisioning, so I used the exhaust bath to dye more intensities ranging in color from pale apricot to dusky rose to russet.

Avocado pit dye gradient
Avocado pit dye gradient against a background of plant-dyed yarn

While I was using the exhaust bath from the pits, I was brewing the skins in the same way I prepared the pits dye. The skins dye appeared redder in its early stages than the pits dye. Left photo, day one. Right photo, day two, pits dye bath photobombing.

When I dyed my first hank in the skins dye, I left it in the bath for 24 hours. It seemed to look slightly pinker than the pits dye, but that slight difference is elusive. It appears in indoor light and disappears in natural light. After that first dyeing, the subsequent hanks from the skins dye were pretty much indistinguishable from the hanks from the pits dye.

Gradient of hanks dyed from avocado pit and skin dyes
The first hank from the skins dye is in the middle of the hanger

At this stage I have no idea which hanks were from the skins and which from the pits. I overdyed some of the pit-dyed hanks in the skins dye in an effort to get slight differences in hue and shade when I got very similar colors. Redundancy is fine when I like the colors as much as I like these.

Here’s the color range to this point:

Avocado dye, maple hull dye, brown maple leaf dye, red maple leaf dye
Top: avocado skin and pits dyes. Bottom: walnut hull, brown maple leaf, red maple leaf

During my previous spate of natural dyeing, I used a mixture of red and yellow onion skins to dye a large number of 1- and 2-ounce hanks. I got a color range of yellows, browns, and greens. This time I wanted to see what I’d get if I used only red onion skins, maybe russet red? I cooked my onion skins for a couple of hours, then put my wet and alum-treated yarn (I understand onion skins don’t require mordants, but I did it anyway) into the still-hot dye bath and let it sit in the cooling dye bath for about two hours until the yarn looked as if it had taken on as much color as it was going to. Like my previous onion skin dyeing, it was beautiful, and like my previous dyeing, it was not russet red. It was a rich deep brown with spots of green in the places that had less exposure to the skins. I dyed a second hank in cold exhaust bath and got more green. A few days later I put a third hank into the cold bath, and I was excited to see it turn a light apricot color, a lot like the avocado-dyed yarn, but then I got greedy hoping for a deeper orange, and the color went past orange and started turning green. So now I have this very weird color, sort of greenish, sort of orangish, kind of a mustard yellow. I love it for the fact that it can’t be pinned down to a specific label.

Three colors from same red onion skin dye bath
From left to right, first dyeing, second dyeing, third dyeing, from same red onion skin dye

When I dyed with the onion skins about a month ago, I put the dye into a bowl with a plastic top and left it on the kitchen counter to wait for me to get back to it. I opened the top yesterday and saw that it’s starting to grow mold, but I put a bit of white paper towel into the bath and it came back with a nice orange color. Has the dye bath fermented? Apparently fermented dye can yield beautiful color, according to a beautiful blog I’ve recently begun to follow, named …shades of lynx… by a wonderful fiber artist, designer, and natural dyer in France named Marylene Lynx. Marylene explains:

All these colours are the result of a fermentation technique, that is to say, it involves a long process where no additional heating is involved, no metal salts and no chemicals are added. All you need really are plants and patience. And a passion for botanics and colours of course. The results are not what most people are used to, no flashing but vibrant colours. It’s the original shades of plants. It’s a whole new approach to dyes but at the same time it’s very ancient.

I just googled fermentation dyeing, and I see that you’re supposed to stir your bath every day to release the gas and prevent the mold that I now have in my onion skin bath. Now I know. But I still have this bath and I am curious, so I’m going to prepare some yarn and see what happens.

My husband made us a very tasty black bean casserole a few weeks ago. Of course dinner is a very good thing, but what got me excited was the sight of the dried black beans soaking in some water, which I appropriated when it was time to cook the beans after about 12 hours of soaking. I put two ounces of wet, alum-mordanted yarn into the cold bean water, which was a purple-black color, and let it sit there for about 24 hours. Here’s the result of the first dyeing. The exhaust bath has turned reddish.

hank dyed in black bean water

The blue yarn looks very vivid next to the previous skeins.

Black bean dyed yarn contrasting with other plant-dyed yarn

There was still enough color in the bath for two more blue hanks, which sat in the bath for 24 hours each. Here are the first two hanks in a group photo with the previous dyeing.

Two shades of black bean dyed yarn with other plant-dyed colors

By the time I took the third skein out of the bath, the water was the palest of lavenders.

Three shades of black bean dyed yarn from same bath

So last night and today I actually did dye two alum-treated hanks in my moldy red onion skin bath, and I got a couple of colors that I like a lot despite the inauspicious condition of the dye bath. It really is time to salute this dye brew for its service and let it rest in peace. The newest two dyeing are in the left-hand photo below. The five colors in the photo on the right are all from the same red onion skins dye bath.

I grew up in the frozen north of New England back before global climate change had come to the public’s awareness, and I love winter and get distressed when we have a warm winter, as this winter has been in my mid-Atlantic U.S. location. Someone told me the other day that the Sahara desert has had more snow this winter than my home city of Baltimore, Maryland has had. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m so disappointed in this winter that never happened that it doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. But on the bright side, soon there will be all kinds of vernal plants blooming in abundance, and I’ll be able to collect birch leaves and walnut leaves and dandelions for springtime dyeing. I wonder if there are plants growing wild in the places where I walk that might get me some purplish colors? And if I dye some more blue skeins with black beans and stick them into a yellow or green dye for a minute, will I get turquoise?  Is it really true that bamboo, which grows invasively here, can actually produce Turkey red? I’d probably better get more undyed yarn so that I can answer these and many other questions.

6 thoughts on “Seeing Red, Getting Green. And Blue

  1. Hi Abby, that’s such a wonderful write up of your dyeing trials! I have been dyeing cotton yarn with avocado and have been getting a differeent colour every year! The first time around got a lovely pastel pink and the next i was pleasantly surprised with a colour similar to what you got. There was also another time when i got no colour at all (i’m thinking I probably didn’t store the skins and pits properly). Can’t wait for the next harvest of Avocados – I will probably get a different colour altogether!!


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